Cairo scorns scenario of pilot suicide; U.S. officials accused of rushing to judgment over cockpit prayer; 'Suicide is against Islam'; Investigators point to Arabic utterance in support of theory


WASHINGTON -- The Egyptian government escalated yesterday its condemnation of U.S. officials investigating the EgyptAir crash, saying that, by focusing suspicion on a backup pilot, they were rushing to judgment about the cause.

Egypt's principal spokesman said that a statement attributed to a relief pilot in the cockpit was being misinterpreted and did not show that he was about to commit suicide by sending the plane into the Atlantic.

The criticism came as a federal official said that aviation investigators were unsure of the significance of the utterance, in Arabic, by the relief pilot as captured on the cockpit voice recorder in the seconds before the Boeing 767 crashed into the sea, killing all 217 on board Oct. 31. The chief spokesman for the Egyptian government, Nabil Osman, said in a telephone interview in Cairo that the words that investigators believe had been uttered by the relief pilot, Gameel el-Batouty, was a Muslim prayer "said in a time of crisis when a person is facing a difficult situation."

"But this prayer would never be said in terms of suicide," Osman said. "It's definitely not to be said by someone who is going to commit suicide, because suicide is against Islam."

Some U.S. investigators said yesterday that despite confusion about the Arabic phrase, they are still persuaded by information from the voice and data recorders recovered from the ocean floor that Batouty may have tried to crash the plane.

The investigators said that they believed the cockpit's voice recorders provided evidence that it was Batouty uttering an Arabic expression that has been translated as "I put my trust in God."

At Egypt's request, the U.S. government has delayed a decision to label the inquiry a criminal investigation and to turn it over to the FBI.

James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that more study of the cockpit voice recorder and data recorder was needed.

The crash, U.S. officials said, was a devastating blow to Egyptian pride. In addition, accusations that an unstable Egyptian crew member caused it could have a serious impact on tourism in Egypt.

The agreement by the United States to delay a criminal investigation reflects the exceptionally close relationship between Washington and Cairo on a variety of issues, including the Middle East peace process and terrorism.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and other senior Clinton administration officials have telephoned their Egyptian counterparts this week to assure them of close consultation between Washington and Cairo as the investigation continues.

The NTSB said that a group of experts, including representatives from Boeing, which built the plane, Pratt & Whitney, which manufactured the engines, the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and the Egyptian government, would begin work today on a transcript from the cockpit voice recorder.

Gen. Mamdouh Heshman, the head of the civil aviation section of the Egyptian ministry of transport, and Capt. Mohsne el-Missiri, the investigator in charge for Egyptair, are among the Egyptians already in Washington.

Transcripts tell whether sounds and speech were picked up by the microphone of the captain or the first officer, or one in the middle, called the cockpit area microphone. They also try to define sounds, including alarms going off and levers or switches being moved.

"The group expects to work through the weekend and will attempt to complete this transcript next week," the board said.

Federal investigators said yesterday that a new interpretation of the Arabic utterance could have some bearing on their initial theory as to what happened to bring down Egyptair Flight 990.

But some of those investigators emphasized that the interpretation of the utterance was not the only factor that had led them to theorize that Batouty, a 59-year-old veteran of EgyptAir who was serving as a relief pilot for the flight, might have tried to crash the plane.

According to that hypothesis, after the co-pilot left the cockpit, the pilot, Capt. Ahmed el-Habashy, left, leaving Batouty alone in control of the aircraft. Batouty then uttered the phrase, "Tawakilt ala Allah," and someone turned off the autopilot. Habashy then returned to the cockpit and remarked that something was wrong and needed to be fixed. Seconds later, the plane began a deep descent.

U.S. investigators said that their initial theory -- that one pilot was trying to plunge the plane into the sea and the other was trying to save the jet by pulling the nose up -- was influenced by the absence of any evidence of mechanical failure.

In addition, safety investigators said yesterday that they had confirmed from the flight data recorder that an elevator on the tail -- a kind of flap, controlled from the co-pilot's seat -- was in the "nose-down" angle while the other elevator controlled from the pilot's seat was in a "nose-up" position. The two elevators are normally aligned.

Senior law enforcement officials said last night that while their theory that Batouty intentionally caused the crash was plausible and consistent with the evidence, they have not found any reason for him to have committed suicide.

Cairo's indignation and anger over the theory that one of its pilots could have been responsible for the crash come at a time when Egyptians and others in the Muslim world believe that Westerners can be insufficiently sensitive to the subtleties of Islam and too eager to attribute deadly events to Islamic extremism.

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